Why would a library come to an engineering company for a maintenance contract?
Have you ever wondered what happens to a book or other library materials as they pass through the system?
Several years ago we were approached by the NYS Education Department to bid on a maintenance contract for their Talking book and Brail Library (TBBL).
They were using an automated system to sort the returned articles and were looking for a company to do routine maintenance on the system and keep it running. We bid on the project never expecting to win it – our people in that vicinity were all engineers and what company would hire a bunch of engineers to grease, oil, and maintain their equipment?
Turns out they were a pretty smart company with an ulterior motive. They said they were impressed with our proposal and were able to read into the proposal and see that we could bring more than just maintenance to game. Their system had been created by some college students who didn’t necessarily have a bunch of manufacturing and process experience. Their ideas were great, but not necessarily the most efficient. The customer was hoping that as we looked at and worked on the system we would make suggestions for improvement. As it turned out, that is exactly what we did and our relationship lasted over 11 years. A very small percentage of our time was actually the routine maintenance they were originally looking for.
Talking Book and Braille Library (TBBL)
The main public library in Albany handles all of the books on tape for New York State. These “books” are provided to patrons that are generally visually handicapped and cannot read typical printed books. At the time, the books were cassette tapes provided in plastic cases and brought in via a cart (4’ X 6’ X 6’ about 500 Lbs) from the post office. The first piece of equipment dumps the contents of the cart onto a conveyor where a person orientates the books and feeds them into the next machine. This unlatches the book container and feeds them onto a buffering conveyor where inspectors pick off each book.
Once inspected, the books are placed on another conveyor that feeds a Latching machine. The Latcher first removes the old mailing label, then closes the latches on the container, flips it upside down and then feed it into the VTS (virtual transfer system). The VTS scans the barcode on each book. This information is transmitted to an Oracle database that contains the inventory of all the books and all of the patrons that are qualified to receive books. The book is logged back into inventory; it is checked to see if anybody wants it or if it needs to go back into inventory. The VTS has 7 output stations with 6 for the various sections of storage and the 7th to send it out to a patron. If it goes to a patron it get a new shipping label inserted and then goes under an inkjet head to print the patron’s address from the database. Then the book goes into one of the post office carts that were emptied with incoming books.
What we provided was 100% of the on-call service and yearly maintenance. We also provided design, build and installation of modification to hardware and software to increase the reliability of the system. Completely new PLC programs for all the machines and several mechanical changes were implemented to improve efficiency, reliability, and production rates.
The original process would handle about 2,200 books a day. Approximately 2,000 of them would get mechanically diverted through the system and 200 would just pass through. One of the first changes we made was to pass the larger quantity and mechanically divert the smaller quantity, thus saving the wear and tear on the equipment. The logic that was built into the controllers, database and scanning system was amazing. It knew which books were in high demand, which books had been requested at another location, it knew where different items needed to be stored or staged, and diverted each book accordingly. The books that were already requested by another user would have a new address card printed, inserted into the proper space in the book, and transferred to the outgoing mail cart without any human intervention.
After over 11 years of continuous improvement, and ultimately a very reliable machine, the 3 major advocates of this piece of automation at the facility moved on to other adventures and when it came time to update the central database system, the remaining staff elected to disconnect the automatic labeling portion of the system. With the internet and other ways of delivering audible books the demand on this system was predicted to decline. With a reliable, less complex machine in operation we have lost touch with the facility, but we assume that the remainder of the system is still operating and benefiting from the improvements we had made. This is the nature of technology; it changes rapidly as we create new ways to get jobs done!